Staff Writer Grace Novarr reviews the Barnard College Department of Theatre’s production of Stupid Fucking Bird by Aaron Posner, directed by Colette Robert.
On Thursday night at 8 pm, I attended, via Zoom link, the Barnard College Department of Theatre’s Stupid Fucking Bird, a play by Aaron Posner based on Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull. The play follows Con, an aspiring playwright; his mother, Emma, who once was a famous actress; Emma’s boyfriend, Trigorin, an acclaimed writer; Nina, an aspiring actress; Dev and Mash, Con’s good friends; and Sorn (Anastasia Hristidis, BC ’22), Emma’s brother.
The themes of the play include relationships, art, family, love, loss, and talent, but the play is constantly self-aware and self-referential, frequently breaking the fourth wall as the characters talk to the audience, expressing awareness that they’re in a play. The plot centers around Nina’s unexpected affair with Trigorin, which drives Con (who’s in love with her) to attempt suicide. The final act of the play centers on the aftermath of this affair: Emma and Trigorin get back together, Nina grieves the death of a baby she had with Trigorin, and Con is still angry at Trigorin and unable to let go of his love for Nina.
Overall, the performances in this show were excellent. Joel Myers (CC ’21) as Con was convincingly angry and unhinged yet still sympathetic; his portrayal of a man constantly on the brink of losing his grip was riveting to watch. His pain during his interactions with Nina, especially their final scene together, was palpable, and his contempt for Trigorin felt real and motivated.
Alex Prezeau (BC ’24) as Nina was also great; she portrayed Nina’s impulsiveness and her infatuation with Trigorin believably, and given Juls Mariano’s (CC ’22) masterful performance as the seductive, condescending Trigorin, the chemistry between the two of them felt real, even though they were acting through a Zoom grid.
Another standout performance came from Eliza Ducnuigeen (BC ’21) as the punk, abrasive Mash, whose outward toughness masked her love for Con. Emma, portrayed by Carolyn Rose Friedman (BC ’21), felt like a very realistic portrayal of an imperfect, self-absorbed, yet still caring mother; the scenes between her and Con were quite moving to watch. Madeleine Watkins (BC ’23), playing Dev, was quite likable, especially in her relatable portrayal of her unrequited affection for Mash.
The aesthetic of the show was vivid and unique, with the first act of the play being saturated with hyper-pigmented, almost cartoonish Zoom backgrounds. In general, the show’s use of the digital format was so powerful that it was almost surprising to contemplate that the show was originally intended to take place on a physical stage. The play used a Zoom “webinar” format that allowed for audience interaction through the chat, so at certain moments in the show, such as when Con asked for advice on how to court Nina, the audience was able to give their opinion.
The show opened with the announcement “The play will begin when someone says ‘start the fucking play’,” prompting the chat to fill up with many “start the fucking play”s. At the end of the show, Con, who has just been left by Nina for the last time, announces that, in the Chekhov play, this is the moment when his character is supposed to pick up his gun and kill himself. This instead leads into a powerful monologue, masterfully delivered by Myers, where he contemplates what would happen if he didn’t want to kill himself, breaking the fourth wall in a riveting sequence. Finally, he declares “stop the fucking play” and the play ends, with the screen going black. The effect was genuinely chilling.
I found it really impressive how the direction of the play and the performances were able to make the audience simultaneously care about the plot of the play and remain interested in the fourth-wall breaking commentary about the nature of the play and of plays in general.
The themes found in the plot echoed the commentary really well; for example, it made sense for Con, the playwright character, to be the one most aware of the play that he was in. Myers’ convincing portrayal of Con’s mania also raised the question of whether Con’s awareness of the role he was playing in the show was a symptom of his mental unease, or the cause of it. At one point, he declares “half of the people they know are more fictional than I am,” creating an interesting tension surrounding the “reality” of any events in the play.
The show also worked really well within the context of the year 2020. The characters in the show referenced “the pandemic” and “anti-maskers,” creating another interesting layer of self-awareness. The show spoke really well to the themes of this year: questioning the larger structures that govern our lives, focusing on personal issues to stave off a larger existential crisis, coping when nothing in life is going your way.
The choice of Zoom backgrounds, especially at the beginning of the play, curated an almost post-apocalyptic aesthetic, which certainly spoke to the present moment. It also created an opportunity for a powerful moment when the performers switched off their green screens and we were able to see their real homes.
In his monologue towards the end of the play, Con takes his camera off its stand and carries it around with him, creating an almost vlog-like effect as he rants through yet another existential crisis. When Nina appears unexpectedly, carrying her camera in the same way, the effect is a sense of intimacy that makes their following final interaction all the more powerful.
Overall, Stupid Fucking Bird was an excellent show, a perfect choice to perform as 2020 comes to a close. The acting was uniformly strong and the direction and “staging” effectively brought out the themes of the play, creating a riveting “new form” of a play.
Image via screenshot from Grace’s laptop.